They’re the butt of a thousand jokes, and sometimes, it seems, rightfully so. Most of us hope we never need one, but in the course of a lifetime the services of a lawyer are almost certain to be needed by all of us.
That can be a problem in a state that’s both cash- and lawyer-poor. Many Montanans can’t afford to hire an attorney when they need one, and with just 3,000 lawyers serving our population of 1 million, demand can, for many reasons, exceed supply. There’s an age-old saying that he who is his own lawyer has a fool for a client. But a lot of Montanans find themselves without counsel when the need arises to work within the legal system.
Judy Meadows, who chairs the Montana Supreme Court’s Commission on Self-Represented Litigants, believes Montanans would be well served to learn more about the law and how the legal system operates, and we agree. To that end, Meadows has organized a four-hour Montana Law Day session this Thursday at the Lewis and Clark Library, giving citizens a chance to learn more about several aspects of the system.
“People don’t understand how the law works, they don’t understand they have the right to represent themselves in court, they don’t know how to access the law,” Meadows said.
Meadows said that in 70 percent of the family law cases in Montana — divorces, parenting plans, name changes, stepparent adoptions and the like — at least one of the parties involved is not represented by an attorney. That’s unfortunate for a couple of reasons: It means people may not be getting the advice they need to make the most of their situations, and it slows the entire process down as judges and everyone else in the system takes additional time to work with people unfamiliar with how the law functions. Lack of knowledge of the law can put judges in particular in a difficult spot, as they try to balance getting the facts out while remaining neutral to all parties involved.
Thursday’s free event will include five 45-minute sessions on various aspects of the legal system, including what to expect if you’re representing yourself in court; how various courts — justice of the peace, city court, small claims court — function; how to find the right lawyer for a certain kind of case; and how to access the law, whether it’s looking up court cases, state codes or regulations or in other areas.
“It’s all so people understand the importance of their legal rights and how important it is to have a fair and independent judiciary that is separate and apart from politicizing and money,” Meadows said.
Not everyone can afford a lawyer, and not everybody wants one. But we could all stand to learn more about the law and how the legal system works. The law affects everyone every day — but until we get in trouble or want to get out of a relationship, we don’t necessarily know what all those effects can be. We applaud this effort to help all Montanans better understand how the law works.